A journalistic charge and the ‘bayanihan’ spirit

Katerina Francisco
Filipino resiliency and the quick collective action to help are commendable, and it shows our resolve to do what is needed to make a difference – but it doesn’t have to stop there

Last Tuesday, when the rain shifted from moderate to torrential, my first thoughts were no, not again. Not this time.

I wasn’t thinking of the massive flooding that Typhoon Ondoy left when it ravaged Manila in 2009. I wasn’t thinking of how my family might have to move out again if the waters rise. I was thinking of what I hated most about that experience: the feeling of helplessness while others volunteered in relief operations.

Back in 2009, I was a college sophomore living in Cainta, one of the hardest-hit areas of the typhoon. It was a Saturday, and I had training for ROTC. I thought myself lucky when I got a message saying classes were suspended; by then, some of my batchmates were already wading across the river that was Katipunan.

As the days passed, those same “unlucky” batchmates were in Ateneo, carrying donations and packing relief goods for deployment. I was stuck at home and stranded in a flooded subdivision.

My cadet officers asked for volunteers to be deployed to help people in far-flung areas. Weren’t reservists supposed to help out in times like these? I was raring to go. Never mind if I was probably one of the people who needed help too. Standing still and waiting until the water receded made me restless.

I could feel the overwhelming sense of civic duty and emotional investment as friends posted messages calling for aid or trooping to relief centers. I wanted to be part of it too.

When I recognized the beginnings of an Ondoy repeat last August 7, I wanted things to go differently. I was working in the media now, just out of college and high on reruns of “All the President’s Men” and “The Newsroom.”

KNEE DEEP. Floodwaters in Cainta rose again, but for some, it was business as usual. Photo by Katerina Francisco

So while the rest of the city headed home, I wanted to go to work partly because of that streak of journalism-as-a-public-trust kind of idealism, but mostly because of a personal resolve: this will not be like 2009. Not again, not this time.

Armchair activism

Not all of us in the newsroom may be risking our lives to tell stories from the field, but we hold a shared belief in the importance of the work we do. Any budding journalist gets the idea drilled into his or her head from Day 1: for the public good, always.

That night, it rained heavily, and when I went outside to check the street I accidentally stepped into a river.

It’s a worse feeling when you know you’re not supposed to be the one who gets left behind. Come hell or high water (and for some heavily flooded areas in the metro, it’s one and the same), journalists are supposed to be out there breaking the news.

But the online community shared in the cause, filling the gaps in places the media have little or no access to. This past week, it was ordinary people who provided flood updates and photos, thanks to social media. They don’t get paid for it; all they get is a little credit and the gratitude of strangers.

In the 3 days I spent working from home and monitoring developments from the sidelines, I watched community action unfold. And it made me rethink what it is I’m trying to do.

Others may call this a kind of armchair activism: with every Facebook post I share, or with every retweet, I can save lives. I can sit back, relax, and enjoy the fruits of my noble intentions. I don’t need to go to relief operations and actually help out; I can just direct people to the nearest centers, orchestrating their movements.

What’s problematic about this is that it promotes band-aid solutions to perennial and predictable concerns. Yes, art and an inspiring tagline celebrating Filipino resiliency are a welcome change from photos of devastation. Retweeting posts about people stranded on their rooftops can get the attention of rescue units. Spreading information promotes awareness.

But this is 2012 and 2009 was 3 years ago.

Long-term solutions

This year’s flooding was a preventable problem, coming from the lessons of Ondoy. We need long-term solutions, and not just spur-of-the-moment collective civic action inspired by a disaster and the call of duty. We need to demand more from our leaders, and not let them walk scot-free while they pat us on our backs for our display of bayanihan.

This isn’t to say that social media “activists” are inferior to the relief center volunteers. This is not to undermine the immense power and potential of social media and the online community. Not all of us could go out and do more; like me, many were trapped in their homes, unable to do much but share information and hope that it makes a difference.

It did. And it will again. Filipino resiliency and the quick collective action to help are commendable, and it shows our resolve to do what is needed to make a difference – but it doesn’t have to stop there. If we could do this for short-term solutions, what’s stopping us from taking it to the next level?

For 3 days, I watched other people tell the story. I watched some of them get riled up over government inaction and then help out personally.

I saw how the idea of working toward “the public good” could be a common sentiment; it’s no longer just a journalistic charge. If this could be translated into action for long-term solutions, then Ondoy would just be one for the history books, not to be repeated again.

And we won’t be as helpless; not this time, or for a long time. – Rappler.com

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